The creative seed for this blog post dates back to 2011. On November 1st in 2011, my mother forwarded Bill Lyons, son of famed Stuart News conservationist and newspaperman, Ernest Lyons, an email that had been sent to me by Mrs. Sheri Anker of the St Lucie County Conservation Alliance. Sheri had come up with an idea to erect a series of signs throughout the St Lucie River highlighting the favorite spots that “Ernie” so passionately and lovingly wrote about throughout his career.
The following essay is Ernie’s son Bill’s response to my mother’s inquiry for guidance on creating a historic Ernie Lyons’ St Lucie River tour, as Sheri envisioned: “Travels with Ernie on his Rio de Luz.”
Bill’s reply was insightful, poetic, and bittersweet. Bill updated the piece in 2014 -after reading about the St Lucie’s “Lost Summer” of 2013, the tipping point causing a tsunami river movement resurgence that even from the grave, through republished essays in the Stuart News, was inspired by the spirit of Ernie Lyons. Recently my mother rediscovered Bill’s essay in her files and now seems like a good time to rethink the sign idea.
It is my wish that after we read Bill’s tribute to his father, we follow through on Sheri’s idea for signage along the St Lucie River. Indeed, it is difficult to mark what is “favorite” when you love it all, but one thing is certain, we must ensure that our beloved river and the spirit of Mr. Ernest Lyons continues so that “progress” in the future won’t mean a bulldozer.
Favorite Places on the River, by Bill Lyons
Ernest Lyons, my father, first came to Stuart, Florida in 1913 and lived there for most of his life. He worked at the Stuart News for 40-some years, retiring as editor in 1975. Dad loved to fish and above all he loved the St. Lucie River, an affection evident in his writings. A few years ago an admirer of that writing suggested erecting signage at Dad’s favorite places on the River. This is my response.
Dad’s favorite places changed with the moods of the River. For instance, I’m fairly sure North Fork Bay wasn’t his favorite place the day he couldn’t find shelter there from what he called a Blue Norther. He had gathered my mother, my sister and me in his boat and set off up the River to look at a piece of land. It rained and blew all the way up the River, abated for a while as he walked over the property, and then poured buckets all the way back to Stuart. Dad never owned a boat with a cabin or a cover, and I don’t recall that Mother ever got into one of his boats again.
Dad really did love the North Fork, though. Willard Kiplinger commissioned Florida artist Beanie Backus to do a painting for Dad – “Just contact Beanie and tell him what you want” — so Dad requested a view from the shore where the narrow North Fork opens out into North Fork Bay. Beanie took a boat out there, sketched the scene, and the finished painting hangs in our home today. Many times in the nineteen forties and early fifties, Dad drove us to Burt Pruitt’s Fish Camp, rented a skiff, and motored down to where two branches of the North Fork converge. The River then was alive with fish and birds and alligators, but by the late fifties, it was gone. Drainage from the Rim Ditch Canal (C-24) did so much damage to that part of the River that it lost its sparkle. I don’t think Dad ever went back to the North Fork; after that, he just lived with the memories.
When Dad wrote about festoons of asters along the banks and sprays of orchids hanging from oaks over the River, he was thinking of the South Fork in summer. He took me there many times and we caught lots of fish, but the magical memories are of the flowers and of the tarpon and manatees that came rolling by while we sat quietly watching. During summer, sheet-flow from the Allapattah Flats converged in tiny rivulets into a deep pool with a sand bottom, the first of a series of pools connected by shallow streams of clear water that formed the headwaters of the South Fork. Dad loved that place, not just for its beauty but for its solitude. It could only be reached by Jeep during the wet season, so we hitched rides with the local game warden, who would drop us off and return for us later. Clyde Butcher’s photos of the upper Loxahatchee River are the nearest thing I’ve seen to what once was the upper South Fork. Then in the fifties, construction of the Florida Turnpike cut off the flow of freshwater to the River. Soon saltwater intrusion crept up the South Fork, impeding the spawning of its fish, and the River began to die. In 1962, a friend and I drove to the former site of the headwaters. The area had been bulldozed and the pool had become a cattle watering hole.
Dad loved many places on the River. Some nights he would drive over to Lighthouse Point (the one with the restaurant on US 1, not the development). He took a lantern, a single-tined spear, and a croaker sack and went wading for flounders. He knew just where they would be, hanging at the edge of the bar waiting for unwary fish and shrimp to wash by. A few hours later he would come home, dump a bag of flounders into the kitchen sink, and start cleaning them. Then the mud from Lake Okeechobee washed down the River and the flounders went away.
Dad loved the widest part of the River, where vast schools of mullet gathered along the north shore. Tarpon and snook, seatrout and jack crevalle would attack the mullet and drive them grey-hounding in waves across the River, often all the way to the shores of Stuart. Interactions between Plains wolves and bison were no more dramatic. Much of the action happened at night as we lay in our beds, listening to the mullet thundering across the River. When hurricane season approached, immense schools of fingerling mullet moved down the River, sometimes taking several days to pass Stuart. They too ran the gauntlet of snook and jacks, and residents flocked to the shore to fish. Who then could not love the River, unless he were a mullet?
In my early years, Dad loved the lower St. Lucie around Hell Gate, that part of the River that separates lower Sewall’s Point from Port Sewall. Again, it was the fishing that brought him there. When winter storms blew, he could find shelter in the lee of Sewall’s Point, and that’s where he would be, trolling for bluefish or bottom-fishing for weakfish. After the months-long runoff from the ’47 and ’49 hurricanes, though, the fish did not return.
Where the River rounds Sewall’s Point it meets the Indian River Lagoon and together their waters flow over large seagrass beds on their way to St. Lucie Inlet. Dad loved casting for large seatrout on the grass flats, and it was there that he and I were fishing in Dale Hipson’s iconic photo that graces one of Dad’s books.
And of course he loved the inlet, where the River meets the sea. Dad was enchanted by the place he called the Sun Parlor, the channel that hooked north around Sailfish Point and spread out to feed the adjacent grass-beds. Ancient black and red mangroves hung in the water along the channel, and sheepshead and snappers could be seen swimming among the snags in the gin-clear waters on flood tides. Sharks were not uncommon in the channel, and queen conchs and large horse conchs lived in the grass-beds. If you wanted to see a roseate spoonbill in Martin County in the fifties, that’s where it would be. Dad spent countless hours in the Sun Parlor. Then the developers came in the late fifties, and it was lost.
Dad loved Bessey Creek, a tributary of the lower North Fork, and once in the early fifties he accompanied me and two other boys on a camping trip to the upper reaches of the creek. Around the campfire at night, Dad told us of a remote pond connected to the main creek by a hidden stream that he found in his youth. We boys searched until we found it, and we took Dad back there to fish. Judging from the abundance of hungry bass in that pond, I don’t think anyone had been there for decades. There were no houses on Bessey Creek then, and we could spend days without seeing another human being. But around 1960 the county built a new road to extend Murphy Road across C-23 Canal. The road cut across upper Bessey Creek virtually on top of our old campsite and passed within 100 yards of the hidden pond. When I returned from the Army in 1962, I walked across a sand lot from the road to the bank of the pond and gazed at the empty bait cups and beer cans on its shore. Humpty Dumpty was off the wall.
Aerial maps suggest that Mile Lake and a few adjacent lakes in southern St. Lucie County may be ox-bows, formed as part of the North Fork but pinched off as the River meandered away. In his boyhood Dad camped and fished around Mile Lake, and he took me there many times. I don’t know if Dad knew Mile Lake had once been part of the River, but it may explain his affection for the place. He loved the River in all of its many parts, but I don’t know how he’d have felt about Mile Lake surrounded by homes and golf courses as it is now.
Dad had a love/hate relationship with the St. Lucie Canal. Its discharges damaged the River downstream, and he campaigned tirelessly but futilely for the Army Corps of Engineers to manage it responsibly. Still, when many of his favorite places were gone, fishing remained good in the canal, and Dad could drive out and fish along its banks. Then, testing found some of the nation’s highest readings for pesticides and heavy metals in fish from the canal. That’s when Dad gave up fishing.
If anyone were to put up signage at Dad’s favorite places on the River, they would need lots of signs. And the signs should say “This was one of Ernest Lyons’ favorite places, a place of magic, until progress did it in. Sit quietly, look closely and try to imagine the sparkle that once was here.” If you can’t see the sparkle, it just looks like water. Or, more recently, like guacamole.
~Bill Lyons, son of Ernest Lyons
Biography of Bill’s father, Ernest Lyons
Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame, Ernest Lyons, 1994
Lyons began working as a reporter for The Stuart News in 1931. He also worked as an advertising salesman, printing salesman, then as advertising director for the paper. He became editor in 1945, serving until his retirement on March 1, 1975. He died April 6, 1990, at age 85.
Under Lyons the paper grew from a tiny independent weekly to a lively Scripps Howard daily. As editor, Lyons practiced community journalism at its best. He had a keen sense of what local people wanted to read and a zeal to guard their interests. Fearing that rapid population growth and urbanization might ruin coastal Florida, Lyons fought for protection of endangered water resources and wildlife habitats.
In 1965, his newspaper columns won the nationwide Edward J. Meeman Award for conservation writing. His writings, some composed 30 or more years ago, still are quoted by conservationists because they ring with enduring concepts and timeless values.
Today I share an incredible historic piece about commercial fishing, written by a leading citizen of Stuart’s earliest days, Mr Curt Schroeder. My mother, historian, Sandra Henderson Thurlow, transcribed his writings. They are typed from a handwritten, unpublished, manuscript. The first time she shared the piece with me I was spellbound and even speechless during parts.
As an animal lover, the story of capturing the manatee, eating loggerhead turtles, or having to tie a line around a cabbage palm tree to hold off a net full of thousands of pounds of fighting mullet was unsettling to me. Nevertheless, those were the times, people were struggling to make ends meet, and the river fed them. They were trying to get everything they could get! In time, it was realized that they were “killing the goose that laid the golden egg…”
Mr Schroeder’s excerpt about the effects of the St Lucie Canal’s (C-44) connection to the river and the destruction that followed, only reinforces my present opinion. He writes: “all self-respecting fish left the river, the silt covered the large feeding places, and the continued fresh water killed the mussels, clams and oysters, and changed the depth of our river….”
It’s all quite a story!🐟
Thank you to my mother for her work and for sharing. As it’s a long narrative, I have highlighted some of the most astounding parts for easy reading. Hope you enjoy!
COMMERCIAL FISHING IN AND AROUND THE ST. LUCIE RIVER
THE MEMORIES, THEORIES AND OPINIONS OF STUART PIONEER CURT SCHROEDER
A manuscript, handwritten by Crut Schroedure during the 1940s, was among the papers of his granddaughter Emily Beach. I have tried to type it as it was written with minimal editing and have not changed the spelling he used for local fishes. Though many of Curt Schroeder’s articles have been published in the Stuart News, I do not believe this piece has ever appeared in print. Sandra Thurlow, July 24, 1994
The crews, two gill net and one seine stayed till mid March, at Palm City, our fish camp. At the beginning of March millions of crabs came into the river and damaged our gill nets, chewing long holes along the lead-line, no sale for crab meat then. One bright moonlit night in February, Capt. John Blakeslee, father of C. D., woke the writer and asked him to get his shotgun and load it with buckshot as there was a black bear across from us, near Noah Parks’ palmetto shack. Slipping into my pants and loading the shotgun with buckshot took a moment. Coming out of our door, I could see across the way near the seine crew shack, something that looked like a bear standing motionless watching. No movement could be detected. From the rear came the encouragement, “Shoot, damn you, shoot!”
Near the line of fire were Noah’s and Sam Young’s bunks. Knowing buckshot to scatter, the watching for movement continued. Finally convinced that there was no animal across from us, we advanced and found Capt. MacCloud’s winter overcoat thrown over a small bush. Part of the overcoat was adorned with black sheepskin. It looked like a bear all right, and if this apparition had been clear of the other shack the writer would have turned loose both barrels.
Speaking of shotguns, my partner that year was a Norwegian, Anderson Stolzwig, who had built our skip jack the “Pompano.” Well Andy owned a single barrel shotgun (maybe some old-timers remember the “Zulu Guns” with the 3 inch firing pins.) This was a 12 gauge. Well in his travel overland and sea, (He had walked from Tampa to Malabar) he had lost the firing pin and used a 20-penny spike in its place. Shooting ducks from the boat, he used to warn anyone with him to stand to the left near him, as the recoil of the shot would throw the 20-penny spike back. Of course, he could not aim this gun as the firing pin would have hit him so he simply pointed the gun. He became a good shot and killed many a duck. But he had no takers when he offered his Zulu to others for a trial shot. Of course the had to carry a pound of 20-penny spikes on his hunting trips, as he never found any of the used ones after firing.
We had lots of visitors at Palm City. Our palmetto shacks stood in a fine palmetto and oak hammock. One evening Noah’s father, Uncle Ben Parks, came to see us about dusk. Standing near the writer, he asked ,”Did you hear him?.”
Of course a head shake was the answer. “Well,” he said, “a big gobbler flew up to roost within 300 yards of us.” He went off located his gobbler and next morning at daybreak, armed with his 10 gauge double-barreled shotgun, he went to the roost and killed the big gobbler.
The first seine fished in our section was manned by Brice Loveless and Noah Parks. In those days, seines ordered were hung at the factory in New York. As the crew lived at Waveland, most fishing was done in the Indian River.
In September 1895, R. D. Hoke, Harry Schultz and George Keller entered into a partnership ordered one 800-yard seine, wings of 9-thread near mid 12-thread and ________15 thread net. A very heavy seine. Their end cables were 3/4 inch rope The steamboat “Lillian” furnished the power to lay out the net, and with trip lines and pulleys hauled it ashore.
Keller was an experienced fisherman and also owned the seine boat. Their first remarkable haul was on Rocky Point in early November, they caught over 50 tons of fish, 20 tons salable, balance foul.
In this haul they had over 10,000 pounds of stingrays some weighing up to 200 pounds. As stated earlier one of the crews fishing out of Palm City was a seine crew, Noah Parks, Captain Sam Young, A. C. MacCloud and Sam Martin the crew. Noah had an accident and hurt his knees badly so to fill his crew he asked the writer to take over and captain his rig. Going towards the inlet after clearing Rocky Point, a large school of mullet was spotted, preparations made for the half circle to enclose the school of fish. Two men were set overboard in knee-deep water, at that time our shorelines were about 50 yards, as soon as the crail or end staff dropped off the boat, these men began to pull for shore. Seining the school of mullet near the shore, the writer used only 2/3 of the net, which was a 500 yard seine and got criticized for not using all the net. Seining the thick school of mullet only a crazy man would have tried to use the entire net, when our boat came near shore we pulled net off to reach shore and tied it securely to a tree. As a strong flood was running, we hauled the end first put over, to keep the net in shape, then next to the end put over last, got same in shape, returned to the first put over end, by this time there were about 250 yards of net out, after pulling a few feet, the school of fish decided it was time for their turn, the fish massed, hit the net and pulled us four men into the river, seeing this, the writer went back and tied the cork line around a cabbage palm standing on the river bank, for a few minutes the crew gained, as this was a slack, a new onset by the mullet, we dug in our heels and it seemed were holding our own, then everyone sat down or fell on the other one behind, the terrific strain was over, we hauled the net in fast, formed about 20 feet of number-9-thread webbing gone between cork and let-line. Picking up we had a 40 dollar haul, but lost about 100.000 pounds of mullet. It was the same day the “Lillian” made her big haul.
About February 1897 Noah and his crew caught a bull sea cow, manatee that weighed a ton. There was demand for sea cow in our northern zoos. The boys put an inch cable around the narrow part in front of the broad tail and fastened the other end of the cable to a cabbage palm. Delivering their catch of fish they went to Juno, the county seat, for permission to sell the manatee, same was granted. Noah came to the writer and asked him if he could load this big bulk. Having studied this beforehand, he was assured, “yes.” As the sale was confirmed on a Sunday, Noah with the crew and the writer, with two large boats went to the scene of capture. The water at the end of the cable, where the manatee rested, was 4 1/2 feet. We sank the large bateaux which could carry 3000 pounds, slipped it under the sea cow, till same rested in the center and bailed the boat dry. For some reason the old bull did not like the planking under him, he rolled over to the side and upset the boat, anticipating some trouble the manatee had not been untied. Well, the same procedure had to be gone through again. The writer dispatched one of the crew to the camp to bring an additional boat. When this boat arrived a boat was lashed to each side holding the middle one with the bull safe. The buyer had a tank built at West Palm Beach, loaded on a flatcar and brought to north Stuart where the manatee was loaded over a ramp with help of block and tackle. About two weeks later one of the New York Sunday papers told how the brave buyer had captured the monster of the deep at peril of his life. Of course our manatees are very timid, the only danger lies in coming too close to the broad tail. In deep water, a blow with that tail will knock a man senseless.
In summer 1894, Cousin Henry Stypmann and the writer had rowed down to Sewall’s Point, while there about one hundred yards off shore, the rear of the row boat went up about 2 feet above water, throwing the writer, who handled the oars, backward, all his hair standing on end. Well Henry set in the back seat laughing, asking for an explanation, he told me that the s—— of the rowboat had hit a sleeping sea cow. I had the same pleasure in the summer of 1918, sailing up river in a light skiff the center board hit a sleeping sea cow knocking the boat about a foot out of the water. The old sea cow got scared and made for the deep. Manatee Creek and Manatee Pocket also called Scobee’s Pocket, seemed to be the favored spots for sea cows to come ashore on high tides and take their sun baths. As many as 7 have been seen there at one time, sunbathing.
During the summer they came up the river and were often seen in the North and South Forks. In the early days when game was plentiful, no one though of eating manatee, but around 1916 young manatees were butchered, pickled and smoked, the meat tasting like pork. In April 1897, C. D. Blakeslee and self decided to take up seining. Charles had ordered a 350 yard specified cotton net. When this net arrived, we went up to his homestead to tar and hang this net. Having given lots of thought to this new undertaking — this was the first seine hung in South Florida. — We hung our cork-line reasonably tight, the lead-line was pulled tight by two men and securely tied, making same 20 feet shorter than the cork line. In hanging the net, each cork and lead were tied separately. Captain John kept our hanging needles filed and Robert, better known as “Pete,” by his friends was the chef, conscientiously cooking three pots of Lima beans each day, the fourth day Pete struck as cook. Our first one-man strike in upper Dade. Pete by inclination and training was a horse trainer, also a good man with cattle. Pete trained trotting horses, owned a rig of his own and won many a race in Yankee land. From 1912 till 1918 he was a teamster and always had fine horses. He passed away in 1926, while this writer was North.
Coming to the fish house with our small seine, Uncle Ernest Stypmann, then part owner of the fish house said, “Once already that seine will never glut our marked.” The 350 yards of light twine 4-inch mesh on wings. Three and one half-inch bunt–looked a very small pile. We ran 100 yard end lines which gave us a 550 yard half-circle. After handling it a few days making paying catches, the two of us made 8 hauls a day. Three weeks after our first landing at the fish house we came in with 1200 pounds of large pompano and about 400 pounds of bottom fish. Well, Uncle Ernest scratched his beard. Ogletree said he’d take 600 pounds of pompano at 6 cents and ship 600 pounds or three barrels on commission, bottom fish 1 cent per pound. It seemed the little seine had glutted the market. Each barrel and packing the fish was $2.00. The commission 10 percent. About six days after our catch, Ogletree made the proposition to give us 6 cents per pound for the fish sent out on commission. Our attitude was that we take what the commission sale would bring, win or loose. These pompano had been sent to Washington D. C. and returned eighty bucks for the 3 barrels, $8.00 for commission and $6.00 for the 3 barrels ice and packing, left $64.00 for the fish. About 10 1/2 cents per pound. No wonder Ogletree wanted to take them at 6 cents. The pompano market became glutted that late spring. To keep on making grits we caught 500 pounds of pompano for M. R. Johns, who paid us $10.00 as we caught the fish in two hauls in less than 3 hours, we were making many.
By 1901 seining was in full swing. There were 3 fish house on the river. In February 1901, a big run of sheepshead had come up the river, the writer was fishing gill nets, Gus Griffin, was our helper, that night the gill nets picked up 50,000 pounds of sheepshead, our boat had 5000 pounds. Charles Blakeslee and hid dad caught 48,000 in their seine haul at Rocky Point. Russian Ed got over 90,000 pounds at Sewall’s Point. The sheepshead were so thick and massed, that a man could have walked on them for a long distance. The sheepsheads will fight a net for a short while, but not as savage and massed as mullet. Two days after these catches the market broke. You could not sell sheepshead for anything.
In 1904 we had three fish houses on the River, and 15 seines running, fishing North and South Fork our main bay, Hogg’s Cove, the sandsprit and the Indian River at Bessey’s Cove. Fishing was good. In February, March and April, big schools of blues came up river to spawn and feed. The seines made big catches of blues. Our first Palmer-powered launches turned out for trawling caught big catches with two lines running. One hundred pound per hour trolling catch was common that spring per boat with one man.
Fall 1902 instead of fishing, a garden was started. Beans, tomatoes, squash were planted on about three acres, located from the east side of the Stuart Department Store to the east end of the Pressel Building, including Osceola Avenue, to near the Post Office, also Seminole Street. As the strong northers were hurting the growth of plants we had to put up a 10 foot high wind brake, getting edgings for same from the Dupont and Middleton Sawmill on the north side of the River, location was South of the Wiley Garage, this mill cut 25,000 square feet each day. The first vegetables planting paid expenses and some profit. Our pineapples were making money and carpenter work during winter months helped out. Prospects were grand. Everyone here was making money. One met none but smiling faces. Our banner crop of 1908 promised great returns, till the F. E. C. turned loose their Cuban Fruit Express. The operation of same has been explained in a former article. Christmas Eve 1909 brought a slight freeze and February 1910 brought a white frost. The writer with John Michelis as a partner and Jack Spiers had farmed at Cane Slough fall 1909 till mid June 1910. The Christmas cold killed our beans, four acres between the three February white frosts killed another four acres. In March, Johns and self had 1 1/4 acre of fine Irish potatoes ready to dry when a heavy rainfall flooded same, loss about $500.00. The three of us had 5, more acres of potatoes on the west side of Big Cane Slough, but same so planted later were badly damaged by the flood and brought only a few bushel large enough to sell locally. That season’s farming will never be forgotten. The writer had never handled teams or plows. Jack and John did our plowing, the three of us had bought a good big horse, “Jim.” as they did the plowing. Well they wished a bull and three oxen on me to do the disking. Oh boy, what a life! The two yokes pulling the disks moved about 1 1/2 miles per hour. As a short handled 10-foot whip went along, it took a very short time to learn how to flick a small piece of hide from the oxen. The bull when whipped, would stop, and the three oxen had to haul the disk and the bull. No more whipping the bull, but speed went down to about 1 mile per hour. On a Saturday night coming to town, saw my friend Pete Blakeslee and asked his advise about the bull — how to accelerate his movements. Well Pete laughed, said believe it or not, but try it, takes a small piece of board put it under the bulls tail take a piece of wood about 2 inches wide 4 to 6 inches long, use the edge of same and scrape the bull’s tail, but be sure you are free of whatever the bull is hitched too. Will next Monday while disking with the ox and bull team, when the bull — he belonged to Hans Olsen –got lazy, the board and scraper was tried. I am glad that Pete had advised to stand clear, as after about four scrapes, the bull tried to run away with the disk and oxen. Only one more scrape treatment was given after that, banging the two pieces of wood was enough to convince the bull it was time to work. Well, the best this ox and bull team would do was one-half acre in 10 hours. Rental for the ox and bull team was 40 quarts of sweet feed per day, also the rounding up of same every morning as these cattle were turned loose to graze. Well on the 8th day the writer went on a strike. No more oxen or bulls– too pay for work returned. We hired Byron Ball’s “Nellie,” a large black mare and with our “Jim” had a fine span of houses, turned out 1 1/2 acres and better per day of well disked land. Growing that year was jinxed: freeze out, frost out, drown out — after the water had run off, John agreed to go in with two acres of tomatoes. Picking out a piece of good prairie land, the writer did his first plowing and turned up two acres in two days. Luckily, Will Crews, had a very large seed bed of tomatoes, ready to plant. Well, we planted our tomatoes in the damp soil and with plenty of fertilizer they grew rapidly and in early May plenty of fruit had set. There was hope that we might retrieve some of our losses. Well you know, “Hope is eternal,” as May sped into June, hope was lost, as we did not have a drop of rain till near the end of June. Our tomatoes were looking fine and had plenty of fruit, but on account of the drought were too small to ship. We sold plenty of tomatoes locally at 10 cents per basket, shipped about 10 crates North.
Our pineapple crop that year was very small, no prospects of any work. Well, when we went out to Cane Slough in early November 1909, we had no debts, some cash money. Coming back we owed the Trueman Fertilizer Company 457 bucks. The feed fill at Parks’ $100.00, our grocery bill nearly $200.00 and we had done seven months of hard work, hours from daylight to dark. As we sold our team, the feed bill was paid, the pineapple crop helped to pay for some of the groceries. Well, things did not look rosy. Talking things over with the boys here, seine fishing was thought of the sinecure.
Well in 1910 it was against the law to seine as matters were grave, the writer went to West Palm Beach, to ask for help from the County Commissioners while in session. The help asked was to allow seining. As the County Commissioners had not made the law, they could not set same aside. Well, Capt. Baker, our first sheriff of Palm Beach County, was tackled, he was told that matters were really desperate. It was a matter of robbing a bank or breaking the law seining. Old Capt. shook his head, “Curt, if you rob a bank, I will put you in the pen, if you seine, well if I don’t see you, I can’t catch you.” Well this oracle was good enough.
With the exception of about 10 elderly men every male went a-seining. John Michaelis and self got an 800 yard used seine weak in spots, a round bottom seine boat with a 5 horse power Palmer and a large bateaux. Seining method had advanced, using 200 yards of 3/8 end-lines on each end of the net, the net was hauled ashore by one man windlass power and about 200 yards of each side of the half circle was hauled in by windlass, balance of 400 yards was hauled in by hand. Six months of fishing paid up the farming debt my share about $600. In the summer of 1910, the river was full of pompano, one thousand pound per single haul occurred often. One day in August, while laying out, our seine got around a school of pompano over on the sandsprit in front of Rio, as we reeled the net to shore the cork line in about the center broke in two and the web tore half way down. We tied the net back together — when the haul was finished we had 853 pounds of pompano. How many got away? Who knows? In September John and self ordered a new net and new lines, our lead lines now were double lines, to avoid the rolling of the seine when hauled in. We tarred one net and hung it. As part of the net was hauled by hand the lead line in an eight hundred yard seine was at least 60 feet shorter than the cork-line, object to form a slack in the web to kind of pocket the fish when pulled ashore — later regular pockets were knit into the bunt. About October John decided to go to West Palm Beach leaving me to look for a new partner. Well, my good friend Bill Baker wanted to try, we fished for two weeks, made about $15.00 between us in that time, one day in the second week we caught an eight pound loggerhead turtle, Bill said, “There is some fine meat. Let’s kill it, when we get home.” Well we got home, sometime, in 1909, while horse trading, the legislature enacted a law, declaring it illegal to kill loggerheads, or have their meat in possession. Knowing the law and also knowing that Bill Baker was our Justice of Peace, Bill was told if his kids needed meat, he was elected to decapitate said Loggerhead. The writer was willing to do the butchering. Well, we ate turtle meat for supper. Bill quit on Saturday night. Pete Blakeslee who had just returned from the nutmeg state was elected to jump in. In our first haul next Monday night we caught about 3000 pounds of mutton fish, snooks and some pompano at total of $35.00. We had made the bill haul, and after making same steady each day took out over $1000.00 in 6 weeks time. Who was jinxed in Bill’s time?
Through the years all obstructions: logs, brush, tree trunks had been hauled ashore. The river bed was cleared, there were a few places up the North Fork and in Hogg’s Cove where the bottom was muck which would foul the lead-line and pull the seine under. These spots were avoided.
When we started seining in July 1910 we started fishing at night, on account of the “no seine law” which Capt. Baker’s dictum had eased considerably. One night, going up the South Fork to make a haul, we came close to the shore near the junction of the North and Sough Forks, someone was hauling a seine there. The Next day we learned that Capt. Hansen with Jack Spiers and Cleve had been nearly caught fishing, when they saw our boat they had taken to the Palmettos believing the law had come for them. Talk about poetic justice, about three weeks later, the same thing happened, only this time John and the writer who melted soundlessly into the saw palmettos, and Jack, Cleve and Hansen had the laugh. After an hour of hiding we came out finished our haul, most the fish got away, we sold about $3.00 worth that night. The opening of the St. Lucie Canal brought great changes. The roiled water ran out all self respecting fish, the silt covered the large feeding places, and the continued fresh water killed the mussels, clams and oysters. During the years it changed the depth of our river. The North and South had an average depth of about 14 feet, our main bay 16 feet and better — figures set up by the 1895 Geodetic Survey of our Government. All these bodies have shallowed more than 4 feet. Most of the clear sand bottom is gone, now filled over with silt and muck. Fishing methods changed in former years it took two boats, power and bateaux, two good men could make two hauls a day an eight hundred yard seine using elbow grease and hand windlass. Now a different style of net is used, hung in reverse to the old customs, the lead line being about 100 foot longer than the cork line. Each crew has two heaving engines, hauling shorelines and net in by power, a seine crew now used 4 boats. The silt bottom changed the method of hauling. In former years the lead line at all times was ahead of the cork line. Now the lead line, weighted down with about 4 times the amount of lead used in former years, drags many feet behind the cork line. This kind of fishing today seems to be all fun and no work.
Seining laws have been enacted several time in the past 40 years. Many theories have been advanced pro and con. The earliest theory advanced was that seining would catch up all the fish and there would be none left to catch. I twice overheard conversations, when a big seine catch was brought in, a gill-net crew said, “It was no use to set the net that night as the damn seiner had caught all the fish in the river.” Another a few days later where a tourist made nearly the same remark. What a nonsense, what folly!
If our river was a closed body of water without ingress or egress to sea, these remarks would have been well founded, but with an inlet at the mouth of our river and more inlets within 20 miles each way, such remarks are more than foolish. Most of our fish varieties are migrating. Our pompano during a part of the year go as far as Africa, coming in from the sea in small schools on the November quarter moon, followed in December and January. When coming in from the sea, they are lean and silver white in color, within four weeks their bellies show a slight golden hue and in three months the fat set only the rich river-fed pompano shows golden color in two-thirds of their body. Pompano feed on small white-shelled clams. Far back in their mouth they have a “kind of nutcracker” with which they crack the clam shell. By the beginning of June the Pompano show roe. By August they have finished spawning. Blues, mackerel, trout and sheephead go north. Mutton fish and snooks, just as the mullets, go and come, many of them stay the year around. The Jew fish–large kind of bass– seems native, same as flounders. Sailor’s choice used to come in large schools and were regular on the first North Easters in September each year. The Gaff-top sail cat migrates and comes back in January and February. Tarpon come up in June to spawn. The young tarpon stay up river and can be found there in considerable schools. All kinds of fish return from October till March to spawn in our shallows. Seining is bringing in considerable amounts of “new” money from out of State. Seines seem to deplete, but at the same time destroys, thousand of game fish that would have devoured near the amounts caught in years to come.
Before the war, fish was a staple food for the poor. Now it seems only rich people can eat fish. Two years ago a three pound flounder was brought home cost, cleaned and dressed, ninety-five cents. Well, well, we used to get three cents for a three pound flounder. Have not had anymore flounders at my house since.
Seining keeps the river bottom clean and free of snags and stranded trees. It helps to mix the spawn dropped by the different varieties of fish. You may know that when fish spawn they go into shallow waters drop their spawn and roil the sand and water, that the commotion will mix the white milky spawn with the yellow roe–fish eggs. The seines hauling over the spawning grounds again stir water and sand and help to fruition much of the spawn that laid there sterile. Of course the haul has to be made within a few hours after the spawning. Mullet and Jack fish could be heard for miles over the river in calm nights while spawning.
Our first outrage against seining was the custom of the seine crew to ‘bail” the foul fish ashore, in the very early days there were few homes on the river but with the influx of people, more and more homes were built along our shores. Well you have heard of tourists. Have you heard of tourist buzzards? I mean the bird. Well, from 1901, for years, there were thousands of buzzards on our and the Indian River. They came in November and left in April. Tons of foul fish were dumped ashore daily. After the seine law in 1909, the buzzards stopped coming. It was common sight to see 100 to 200 buzzards run along the shore in one flock. In September 1917, Russian Ed caught a school of sailor’s choice on the Indian River, sold 50,000 pounds and let more than 100,000 pounds rot there, creating a stench that stayed there for many weeks.
Some of our masons belonging to the Chapter and Commadery at Fort Pierce, used to make weekly runs via Dixie to For Pierce and were near choked traversing that stench zone on the Indian River. We voted seining out that year. The fault that seining has been voted out time and again lies with the fisherman. In the years long ago, it was the dumping of foul fish that raised opposition, later there was “greediness.” by using smaller and smaller mesh in their bunts and pockets.
When we started seining, we used four-inch mesh on wings and three and one-half inch mesh in center. Two pound blues, trout and large mullet would gill, or rather “jam” and were caught. One and a half-pound fish would easily go through the mesh, occasionally we had a one and one-half pound trout or blue, bundled up with other fish but these were exceptions. Today with the small mesh, trout, blues mackerel, mullet and other fish are caught that weigh less than one pound. A two pound fish spawns and reproduces, a one pound fish is not developed for spawning and when caught cannot reproduce. Continued practice of this will help to lower reproduction. A sensible seine law should be passed allowing 800 yard seines, prescribing four-inch mesh wings and the bunt of 150 yards to be three and one-half inch mesh. The web hung four inches and three and one-half inches to each two meshes. This would give half grown fish a chance to find its way through the mesh. Any net with smaller mesh should be confiscated for good, burned or destroyed by rock line, so later legal tricks could not restore such net to some mysterious owner.
Laws of protection for spawning fish should be set out for each species. Fish are spawning the year around when one species finished another starts, etc. These laws would protect the fishermen and assure him and posterity of plenty of fish. Catching pompano of under one pound (in bygone years they brought one cent per pound) a wise fisherman should return these small pompano to the river as the hauling ashore does little harm to them.
But with the seine law, restrictions should be more stringent about gill nets in the forbidden zone of the inlet. Up to 1901 there were no restrictions about fishing in the or near the Inlet. John Michaelis and self fished partner boats with Captain John Houston and his brother, making our circles just outside the mouth of the inlet. Later when the Houstons returned to Eau Galie we fished with Phil O’Brien, and old Bank fisherman from Glouchester, Massachusetts. We saw after 1901 many a net drift end ways out of the Inlets, forbidden waters, then as today. In the old time we used two sets of ten-foot oars. Now power boats capable of making 20 m. p. h. fish these waters, use their bright spotlights to dazzle the fish and catch them easier than the old-timer ever dreamed of. It is not a common practice to fish the forbidden zone, but believe it is fished. This new power method turns many a fish back into sea, that would have come into the river.
Many of the fish here have different methods to evade capture, mullet and pompano will jump the cork line. A trout, watching the encroachment of the net, will back off, get his underfins busy, fan a hole into the sand, stick his snout into the hole and let the lead-line slip over his head and body. We never made big trout catches in the old days. The good old snook will stick his snout into a mesh open his jaws, get his two razor blades, located in front of the gills, busy and cut himself out. A mullet will jump to a light. In the old days it was easy to catch a mess of mullet at night. A lantern sat on the thwart would do the trick, but you sure had to douse the light quickly, as there were more than enough mullet around to sink the boat.
Neither seine nor gill nets have diminished our food-fish supply. The disregard, legal or illegal, of catching fish during spawning periods will make our returning schools of fish ever smaller.
As stated, the different times, each species of food fish should be protected by stringent Federal laws. We had a state mullet law, trying to protect that fine food fish for about 15 days each year. (Who laughed?) Well, our fine Indian River mullet are few and far between, in the 1890s they came in schools of millions.
Seine and gill net fishermen and their dealers should ask for decent laws, including closed seasons of at least 4 weeks for all salt-water food-fish, to protect this great industry that has brought many millions to our state. Get together, there is no use of the pot calling the kettle black.
Mullet are famous for being excellent jumpers. In fact, Florida Fish and Wildlife states “it’s often easy to identify their locations by simply watching for jumping fish.” Me? When I see a mullet jump, I have a tendency to personify thinking, “now there’s a happy fish!”
This beautiful jumping mullet-sunset photo was taken by my brother, Todd Thurlow, this past Saturday evening, October 10th, 2015 just off of North River Shores.
Former Stuart News editor and river advocate Ernest Lyons wrote about mullet jumping in his essay ” Never a River Like the St Lucie Back Then.”
There was never a river to compare to Florida’s St Lucie I when I was young….the river fed us. You could get all the big fat mullet you wanted with a castnet or a spear. If you were real lazy, you could leave a lantern burning in a tethered rowboat overnight and a half-dozen mullet would jump in, ready to be picked off the boat bottom next morning….at the headwaters of the south fork of the St Lucie….the waters were clear as crystal… (Ernest Lyons 1915-1990)
Today, the water of St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon are anything but clear, but “hail to the mullet that are still jumping!”